Sensitivity to Noise as We Age

Sensitivity to Noise as We Age

Complete peace and quiet is almost an impossibility in our modern age. Hyper connected, we live surrounded by buzzing notifications, traffic noise, and the sounds of city life. Even those living in rural areas might have to contend with airplane noise, farm machinery, or the din of natural resource extraction.

These sounds go past the point of annoyance. More studies are suggesting that noise pollution can have a damaging effect on your physical and mental health. This has particular ramifications for older adults with hearing loss. It’s not yet known why, and it is contrary to popular ideas of hearing loss, but hearing loss can also make people less tolerant of certain sounds, which can affect their well-being. This can lead them to avoid certain noisy places like bars and cafes, making them more socially isolated.

“Exposure to noises from crowds, traffic, and other everyday sounds can become harder to tolerate and increase stress levels, leading to anxiety and a reduction in overall quality of life,” says Dr. Stephanie Tompkins, an audiologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

Noise Can Be Bad for Your Heart

This exposure to loud noise could raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. That was the conclusion of research which was presented to the American Heart Association’s 2018 Scientific Sessions.

To get to this conclusion, scientists studied almost 500 heart-healthy people with an average age of 56. They were given PET and CT scans of their brains and blood vessels, with the scientists looking for changes in the amygdala — a part of the brain which is used in regulating stress. Scientists then gathered noise levels from the Department of Transportation based on their specific addresses, to see which participants lived in the noisiest areas.

After five years, it was found that the people who were exposed to the most noise had higher levels of amygdala activity and more inflammation in the arteries. They were three times more likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke compared with those who had less noise exposure. High levels of activity in the amygdala was responsible for increasing blood vessel inflammation, which makes people more likely to develop heart disease.

Another large study from the UK that investigated the effects of aircraft noise exposure over a period of 15 years found that deaths from heart attacks went up when the noise was louder and continued for a longer time. According to the latest figures, estimates suggest a ten-decibel average increase exposure to aircraft noise led to an increase in high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes of between 7% and 17%.

Protect your hearing

How can you protect your hearing and your heart as you get older? Start by downloading an app on your phone which gauges the sound around you. This will tell you if the sound you are hearing is at a dangerous level. If the sound is too high, you can protect yourself by using filtered earplugs. These which reduce surrounding noise levels but don’t block it out altogether so you can still hear your friends in the café. You can also use noise-cancelling headphones, which block out sounds from around you while you are on the subway, at work or even on an airplane.

If you’re wondering how loud is too loud, it helps to consult the experts. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that we avoid sounds of more than 85 decibels (dB) over eight hours. But according to Dr Tompkins, people should protect themselves earlier rather than later: “Even if you don’t always have a negative reaction to noises, you should be mindful about your exposure to loud sounds to help protect yourself,” says Dr. Tompkins.

What about those who are sensitive to any kind of noise, even sounds which other people consider unobtrusive? Some people swear by cognitive behavioral therapy, which has had a 50% success rate in reducing noise-related stress in certain studies. It tries to help you explore and change the way you think about the problematic noises to reduce negative reactions, change the way you deal with the noise, and help you recover from any symptoms that arise from your response to the noise.

Are you feeling more sensitive to the noise around you? It might be a sign of hearing loss. It’s never too early or late to check your hearing. Schedule a test with South Shore Hearing Center today!